China’s Online Cowboy Rounds Up Buyers

Main Content

China’s Online Cowboy Rounds Up Buyers


(This story is part of a series ofprofiles on innovativee-commerceentrepreneurs whowerecandidates forAlibaba Group’s 2011 Global Top10 Netrepreneurscontest.)

Shandong province in Eastern China is famous for hard drinking and hard workers. Shandong people helped foment the Boxer Rebellion, and Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, was from here. Shandong meals are washed down with the white hot sorghum liquor called baijiu. Toasts are so frequent that the stuff is often poured from half-gallon jugs. It helps take the edge off the food. Nearly every local dish tastes as though it was made with a pound of salt. Little wonder the men from these parts are known around China as “Shandong big men.”

They don’t come much bigger than Meng Hongwei. A finalist in Alibaba’s Netrepreneur of the Year awards, Meng founded Laixi Ranch, a small but growing online market for live cows, goats, donkeys and rabbits—and he did it all from his wheelchair. The ranchis not yet a major money spinner. Annual revenues are less than $50,000. But that’s a significant income stream in a rural area where the families of people with a disabilities earn less than $200 a year on average, according to a China Disabled Persons’ Federation report. In an interview with Alibaba One-on-One, an online TV program, Meng explains his success this way: “I’m not a disabled man. I’m an online businessman.”

Meng was born able-bodied into a family of farmers in a village outside of Jining, a city in southern Shandong. While his younger brothers and sisters dropped out of school, he was the first in his family to graduate college. He studied construction and went to work as a road surveyor for a state-owned company. He rose to supervisor, bought an apartment, got married and had a baby on the way when the first in a series of personal tragedies struck.

One winter day, his brother, whom Meng hadhelped get aroadbuildingjob,slipped on a patch of ice and fell into a cement mixer. The machine chewed his arm off. Seeing his brother bleeding out in the snow reduced Meng to tears. When his father and his uncle arrived at the hospital, Meng felt ashamed. “I apologized to them for not taking care of my little brother,” Meng says.

He was determined to work harder than before to support his family when another disaster struck. Rushing from one job site to another, the van he was riding in swerved off the road, broke through a guardrail and rolled over. No one discovered the crash for several hours. By the time Meng made it to a hospital, the damage to his spine was irreversible. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

“One day I was a supervisor. The next day I was useless,” Meng says. “I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t walk. I felt so desperate.” His wife left him soon after the accident. He was so despondent that he tried to starve himself to death. He was lying in bed, wasting away, but his sister couldn’t take it anymore. “She yelled at me that the family was $15,000 in debt and that my brother had no arm,” Meng says. “She was afraid the family would collapse without me.” So he decided to live.

He tried making money by writing magazine articles and by painting. Both were flops. Debt collectors were calling his mother. “I’d spent three years in the chair and hadn’t earned a penny,” Meng says. In 2006, he tried opening an Internet cafe, but it wasn’t properly licensed. Public Internet access is heavily regulated in China, and the police soon shut him down. That was another $1,500 lost.

Then a college buddy, who built barns for a living and had been traveling around farm country, happened to stop by for a visit. “He told me that most farmers bought goats and cows at local markets, but the quality and price of the animals was inconsistent,” Meng says. He thoughtthe livestock trade might be ready forsome modernization. He found a breeder willing to go into business with him, and set-up an online store on

Gettingthefirst order was tough. “Usually people buy livestock in a market where they can look at the cows and touch them, but online that’s not possible,” Meng says. People were afraid he was a fake. He invited them all to come to Shandong to check out the animals in person. When certified him as a reliable provider, it helped. But patience was essential. “Some farmers will spend their entire savings to buy a few cows. They ask the same questions over and over. If you want people to trust you, you just have to communicate a lot.”

After a year of promoting his business via farming forums, Meng made his first sale to a farmer from Nanjing. “I picked him up from the train station. I’ll never forget it. He was wearing a red suit. No one wears red suits in Shandong. I thought he looked very Western.” The man in the red suit bought 300 goats. Meng says he pocketed $230 on the deal. He reinvested it in marketing his business.

Four years later, Meng has gone from working with one breeder to more than 200. In 2009, he brought some of the breeding in-house, investing $15,000 in a cattle ranch. Meng handles the online side of the business while his one-armed brother goes out on visits to breeders all over the region. They use fulfillment companies to truck their animals to farmers nationwide.

The brothers aren’t limiting their business to China. Meng just signed a letter of agreement for its first international sale to a client in Dubai. “They used to get their cows from Australia, but our cows are cheaper and shipping from China is cheaper,” Meng says. “Our cows are good quality.” The deal has yet to go through; the client needs export certification, and Meng must provide someone to care for the cows during their ocean voyage to Dubai. But Meng, one of Shandong’s “big men,” is clearly willing to think big.

Reuse this content

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Stay updated on the digital economy with our free weekly newsletter